My Top 20 Albums of 2020


A bit late, but I’ll never forget about you Shattered Lens. Happy New Year. 🙂

20. Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald

black metal

Sample track: Alt

Like every Paysage d’Hiver album I’ve heard, Im Wald is a meaty grind that I never fully internalized. At over two hours, this one was especially difficult to soak in. So why include it? I think Wintherr is a very consistent artist. At least, he sets an atmosphere that jives well with me and achieves roughly the same mood from one release to the next, whether he’s plodding out black metal or toying around with ambient noise. I’ve got nearly his entire discography sitting around and have yet to hear something I didn’t enjoy. Das Tor was the closest I came to really appreciating one on an individual track level, but… when in doubt looking for some relatively classic BM sounds to binge in October, Paysage d’Hiver is always a good fallback, and Im Wald sustained that expectation.

I gave this entry a last second bump over Nine Altars by Primeval Mass, which deserves an honorable mention. When it comes to albums I enjoyed a lot in passing but never fully committed to, black metal is going to win me over before thrash most of the time. But my 20th slot was a bit of a toss-up.

19. Krallice – Mass Cathexis

experimental metal

Sample track: Mass Cathexis

An honorary placement perhaps? I’m not sure how deep my bias runs here. I have a lot of respect for what Krallice does, and they have written some of my all time favorite music. Mass Cathexis is a very experimental piece prone to meandering chaos that doesn’t always resolve in a holistically satisfying composition for me, but just seeing them continue to create interesting things gives me a lot of satisfaction. There are a lot of albums I could have put into the low end of my top 20. The positive association I have with the band beyond this particular album gave it the edge over releases in a similar boat of enjoyable but not particularly memorable to me. And the title track featuring Dave Edwardson of Neurosis is pretty sick.

18. Enslaved – Utgard

progressive metal

Sample track: Homebound

I binged Enslaved pretty hard this year, not just this album but in general. Utgard is definitely one of their least interesting releases to me, but as I slowly approach old fart status, it becomes increasingly more appealing to hear old bands I’ve loved for a very long time continue to release music that doesn’t suck. And this is good, so I enjoyed it, and here we are.

17. Funeral Leech – Death Meditation

death metal

Sample track: Morbid Transcendence

I have no recollection of what lead me to pick this up on bandcamp earlier this year, and it hasn’t made any big waves in the metal universe that I know of. It’s a slightly doomy death metal grinder that has never leapt out at me as bearing any particularly unique qualities, but this sort of sound has an occasional home in my play list, and for whatever imperceptible reason, this is the album I was most inclined to put on when that mood struck.

16. Emyn Muil – Afar Angathfark

basically Summoning

Sample track: Arise in Gondolin (extended)

When you base your sound around one of the most unique bands in metal, I suppose the parallels are unavoidable, but Emyn Muil doesn’t seem to care about any sense of originality. The homage here goes a bit beyond copying a style. Black Shining Crown, for instance, directly lifts its melody from The Glory Disappears off Stronghold, and it borderline qualifies as a cover song. …Giving it a new name rather than acknowledging it as such is at least a bit awkward, but honestly, I don’t really care. Summoning is sitting pretty at my #3 most listened-to band ever, and I’ll gladly indulge a group that goes out of their way to sound exactly like them. I haven’t actually heard their earlier albums yet, but given that my favorite track on this is a reworking of Arise in Gondolin from their 2013 debut, I’m pretty optimistic. Afar Angathfark is fun and highly attuned to my tastes, if entirely unoriginal, and despite a fairly late discovery, I ended up listening to it quite a lot this year.

15. Black Sky Giant – Orbiter

spacey rock

Sample track: The Phobos Rider

This is the only album that made my list that I wouldn’t really classify as metal. It’s a smooth, spacey jam that gets a bit heavy at times, a bit rock and roll at others, but definitely aims for chill vibes throughout. I have no idea how I even stumbled onto it, I really never dug in to learn much about it, and the artist seems to be pretty obscure. But it’s a great night mood when I want a pulse without an edge, and it’s kept me company a fair bit in recent months.

14. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville

avantgarde metal

Sample track: City Swine

I gave Vile Luxury second place in 2018, and I don’t regret it. What made Alphaville a bit harder to process was, well, Imperial Triumphant aren’t a novelty to me anymore. That what the hell am I listening to thrill is numbed, and we’re meandering eclectic through a chaotic scene I’ve seen before. Imperial Triumphant don’t write memorable, catchy riffs. They don’t conjure a contemplative atmosphere to focus my senses and drive me along from the background. This is a barely-hanging-on jumble of harsh contrasts, discordant noise, and patchworked transitions, all quite well suited and effective for capturing their sinister portrayal of urban opulence. If I was still in hobby of writing proper album reviews, I could conjure a pretty gushing one here, but when it comes to just ranking what I’ve enjoyed listening to the most, well, there are only so many undistracted hours I can devote to one album, and that’s what Alphaville demands. In the absence of that initial novelty of their sound I experienced two years ago, I do still love this, just not quite as replayably.

13. Havukruunu РUinuos Sy̦mein Sota

pagan black metal

Sample track: Uinuos Syömein Sota

First impressions are misleading, and that’s why this album stands where it does. I only discovered it sorting through other people’s year end lists, and while my initial impression was very positive, it never got the time to grow or fade on me. It was really exciting to hear something fresh within the pagan bm spectrum, and I wanted to bump this up really high, but lack of an opportunity to see how it stands for me over time held it back a bit. And unlike another album I stumbled into in the closing week of December, the growth didn’t force itself on me organically through a compulsion to just keep listening to it over and over again. I suspect this will move up, but this is the spot it’s earned for me so far.

12. Finntroll – Vredesvävd

folk metal

Sample track: Mask

Yep. It’s been seven years, but Finntroll have a new album, and unlike quite a few gimmicky folk metal bands of their era, they’re still pretty damn good. If you’re familiar with anything this band’s released since Visor om slutet, you won’t be in for any surprises. If you like your metal with heavy synth and a side of polka, you won’t be in for any disappointments either.

11. Cénotaphe – Monte Verità

black metal

Sample track: Aux cieux antérieurs

An energized, driving debut full length out of the black metal powerhouse that is France, Monte Verità offers a hint of viking metal and some pretty catchy riffs. Cénotaphe keep it dark but vibrant, setting a mood that has stood the test of time well for me as a background piece that keeps me energized without getting in the way. I was surprised by just how many times I’d actually listened to this when I was going through my year end options. The numbers don’t lie. This was one of my most listened to BM albums of 2020 and still feels fresh as I’m writing this.

10. Primitive Man – Immersion

drone/doom metal

Sample track: The Lifer

This was my first time hearing Primitive Man. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Caustic, but I came into Immersion with a blank slate, and I have to say I enjoyed it quite a lot. The Lifer is an awesome opening track that just instantly crushes you under the weight of this band’s sound… and then not terribly much happens for the next 36 minutes. I think you either vibe with it or you don’t. These guys drag everything out at such lengths that it sometimes feels more like a very brutalized Sunn O))) album than something in the traditional doom metal sphere. The sheer weight of their sound is unmatched by anything I’ve heard personally, and at just over half an hour, it manages to compress a slow roll into a sufficiently brief package to still have identifiable songs without requiring too attentive of a listen to process. I actually preordered this based on a few samples, and that initial appeal has managed to sustain through to the end of the year. Definitely a band I’ll continue to keep tabs on. I also stumbled into the Sweet Leaf cover of my dreams along the way.

9. Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence

atmospheric black/folk metal

Sample track: Masquerade Of The Gunslingers

It’s hard to say how much Wayfarer’s open embrace of the American west in theme and imagery preemptively colors my perception of their sound. The acoustic guitar passages certainly carry it deep into the music, but there’s something very compelling in their full package. I often find their drudging mood highly reminiscent of Drudkh from an inattentive distance–a band that similarly captures a specific folk aesthetic with fairly minimal open deference to musical tradition. Much like World’s Blood, which also finished high for me when I first discovered the band in 2018, A Romance with Violence is a difficult album for me to sit down and focus on. It’s a mood piece in which I find few memorable passages but a steady progression that can keep me passively engaged as I go about my work and let its ambience fill the void around me. It’s been one of my go-to defaults to put on when nothing else is immediately drawing me, and in that distanced capacity it has managed to rack up more plays than most this year despite an October release.

8. VoidCeremony – Entropic Reflections Continuum: Dimensional Unravel

progressive death metal

Sample track: Sacrosanct Delusions

It’s rare for a death metal album to sit this well with me in terms of plain old repeatable enjoyment, but this one really hits a sweet spot. Loaded with complex but catchy hooks and outstanding bass runs, it manages to merge brutal intensity and enough oddly timed noodling to keep my brain occupied while still feeling smooth on the edges. As someone who doesn’t listen to much death metal, it’s hard for me to make a direct comparison. The bass here sort of reminds me of Opeth’s Morningrise, not in tone but in the way it tends to flare up into a second lead adding another layer of life to the sound, making otherwise generically harsh passages feel vibrant and alluring.

7. Boris – NO

punk, doom

Sample track: Anti-Gone

What a triumph. I’m always hesitant to label anything my unconditional “favorite” in music. These lists are just a silly excuse to double down on exploring and sharing what I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. But let’s be real. I’ve been doing this for two decades now, and there’s only one name that has never faded out of top ten contention into obscurity through those years. Boris is my favorite band by so many objective measures that there’s really no point in pretending they’re anything less or putting on a facade of unbiased scrutiny towards their eternal onslaught of new releases.

NO leaves its mark in their discography in the form of unrelenting energy, and that’s a pretty unusual statement for a band to make nearly 30 years into their history. It’s a sound that’s been fundamental in their repertoire from the get-go and frequently reared its head for a track or two up through Pink, but it wasn’t what made them great. Ibitsu and Furi felt like filler tracks on Akuma no Uta. There’s a lengthy stretch between Heavy Friends and Kane the Bell Tower of a Sign that I barely remember on Heavy Rocks. Boris were killing it on post-rock and doom metal and bluesy 60s rock anthems in a way that I felt overshadowed their punk inclinations before eventually branching out in every direction imaginable. NO takes it back to the punk roots hard, but with no strings attached. Especially in that post-Flood era of rock cuts, I feel like they were writing songs that built on the ideas of their predecessors. There was a sort of formula to it all, that over-the-top-distorted 60s blues aesthetic cut loose into rock and roll. By 2020, there’s really no point in comparing Boris to anyone but Boris. NO is 40 minutes of doing that thing they do with an intensity they haven’t approached in ages, and their sound has expanded so much in the interim that all of their previous punk inclinations pale in comparison.

6. Velnias – Scion of Aether

folk post-metal

Sample track: Supernal Emergent

I saw Velnias live in 2010 opening for Alcest and was impressed enough by the performance to pick up their then only release, Sovereign Nocturnal, but I dropped the ball on ever giving it a proper listen. When Scion of Aether dropped on Bandcamp this year, something triggered a recommendation ping, and it took 30 seconds of sampling to convince me to grab a copy. They tend to be labeled folk metal of that American sort, and I definitely picked up on vibes reminiscent of Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch in their performance a decade ago. But this is something a bit more polished than those bands, with a grooving progressive aesthetic sometimes reminiscent of Russian Circles adorned by earthy organic tones. This album offers immersion in a primitive natural setting through the smooth brain massage of post-metal.

It was interesting finding myself placing this album so close to Wayfarer. I suspect on a superficial level they may feel very similar, but the holistic experience is completely different for me. A Romance with Violence is ideal in the background, setting the mood without getting in the way. Scion of Aether is distracting, frequently gripping my attention. A Romance with Violence is grounded and bleak. Scion of Aether is, well, a bit aethereal.

5. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still

atmospheric death metal

Sample track: Drawn Into the Next Void

I am very hesitant to put late discoveries in my top 10. I’ve been there and laughed at myself for it enough before. First impressions can be pretty slanted, and albums with a lot of catchy riffs especially start out higher than they often end up. But this isn’t that kind of album. This is a slow grower that hooked me so fast it has accumulated a month’s worth of plays in the past seven days. I knew I was in for something special the first run through by the way its mood resonated with me. When absolutely nothing specific stands out but I still walk away feeling incredible, an album is destined to hold up well, because the familiarity will establish itself in an already highly positive context. I’ve been listening to this obsessively ever since, and every time I notice more and more detail fleshing out the massive if morbid world of sound they’re presenting. Drawn Into the Next Void’s crushing waltz is the highlight for me so far, but I don’t think I am anywhere near done exploring this album yet, and I won’t be surprised if 5th place feels too low when all is said and done.

4. Lure – Morbid Funeral

black metal

Sample track: La danse du pendu

What a find. I’ve never heard a single band on Amor Fati and stumbled into this debut demo on a lark clicking through fairly random recommendations. I think the post-black metal tag is beginning to feel dull in an era where bands that don’t take the genre some place unexpected rarely get mentioned. Fifteen years ago, I might have used it here. It’s noteworthy because Morbid Funeral has a lot of the trappings of a conventional black metal album. It’s as brilliantly raw as its French origin promises and definitely sustained by perpetual blast beats, tremolo, and unearthly howls. But it is intensely emotionally evocative in a way that characterization fails to imply. It’s a constant onslaught of gut-wrenching chord progressions paced to feel like absolute desperation which, despite the shortest track clocking at over 12 minutes, rarely breaks into anything that could be perceived as fill. The album descends down a rabbit hole of rapid-fire despair that climaxes 7 minutes into the closing track in reverse form, slamming on the breaks for the first time in half an hour to slow roll out a death knell broken bittersweet melody while B.F.S. coughs and chokes and loses his freaking mind on the microphone. La danse du pendu will inevitably be overlooked in most metal circles in 2020, but to call Lure the most promising new artist I’ve heard in a few years would be a disservice; he offered a masterpiece out the gate.

3. Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies

post-black metal

Sample track: SIHEYMN’s Lament

Where do you even begin with a Liturgy album? A big step up from H.A.Q.Q. for me, which I nevertheless enjoyed, Origin of the Alimonies is yet another unique and inspired installment in a discography that’s been so persistently ahead of its time I think more people will respect this 20 years from now than do today. H.A.Q.Q. was, for all its oddities, at least a slight return to form in reinviting the project’s black metal roots into the framework. Origin of the Alimonies reaches back into the unknown, but not with the bold curiosity I adore on The Ark Work. This is a highly refined album, carried along by a narrative orchestration, the intensity flaring up in fits and starts as movements within Hunter’s esoteric tale. It’s some sort of black metal opera.

I can listen to this all day and never [i”>feel[/i”> like I’m listening to a metal album. For all its intense drumming and screams and tremolo guitar, the mood is almost intellectual. Hunter’s a pretty rare gem impervious to conformity and brilliant at articulating the the unique musical ideas in her mind, and I can easily call this my second favorite album in her discography.

2. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi

psychedelic black metal

Sample 1: Kuulen ääniä maan alta
Sample 2: Taivaan portti

I picked up the new Oranssi Pazuzu almost as a matter of policy. I’ve known about them since their debut and have every full length album. After a certain amount of accumulation, a band just becomes automatic. But honestly, I couldn’t have told you anything about them. I never really [i”>listened[/i”> to them, not even as a passive background piece. I dimly acknowledged that they were doing creative original things within the sphere of my metal interests, and that was good enough for me, but every release to this point was one spin and done. Going back and briefly sampling their older albums, I’m not convinced that I was missing out. Their sound is distinct, but not the sort that instantly compels me to relisten. I don’t think I’ve given their past releases enough of a fair chance to say that Mestarin kynsi is different, but my goodness did it strike me differently from the get-go.

The album kicks off with a seven minute brooding introduction that builds up an eerie mood for things to come and ultimately climaxes into a pretty groovy but still restrained dark jam that’s driven as much by electronic tones as anything conventionally metal. The restraint is key, because each track takes this same approach while growing just a little bit more unhinged. It’s a masterfully planned collective work in terms of persistently evolving through levels of linear progression. Tyhjyyden sakramentti starts off as brooding as Ilmestys, but now a bit jazzed up, with a climax that’s more intense and a further progression out of that mid-track explosion into a warped psychedelic nightmare.

This progression through levels of increasing intensity and weirdness sort of maxes out near the end of Uusi teknokratia, roughly half way through the album, and you get a sort of soft reset with its outro and the subsequent Oikeamielisten sali, which feels entirely tame after where the album had gone before. A bit of a let down at first, but it came to feel like an integral part of the journey as I grew more familiar with the album, because we’re segueing into the two most wild tracks in the mix to close things out. Kuulen ääniä maan alta is a beat-driven electronic trip that takes the album to, if not its most intense moment thus far, certainly its most bizarre and satisfying. And the closer Taivaan portti is one of those grand finales that start at 11 and cram more and more and more into a sound space that was maxed out from the get-go until it finally just collapses into nothing. That’s a whole lot of hype words that don’t really say much of anything. Just go listen to it. I also found this fantastic live performance of the album. Taivaan portti is the sort of track that’s made to be experienced live, and the video does not disappoint.

This is, essentially, my idea of a perfectly crafted album, stringing together six independently grand tracks into a master work with clear flow and vision. It’s the sort of album I can easily give 1st place to and not feel silly about later, because it appeals to me both innately and as a piece of auditory art.

1. Mystras – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed

medieval black metal

Sample track: The Zealots of Thessaloniki

Relegating Spectral Lore’s III to second place on my 2014 list was a pretty boneheaded mistake, and after a great deal of consideration, I’m going to do it again. I’m not sure why Ayloss released this under a different name, but after half a decade of ambient and electronic pieces, this is absolutely the heir to III. Years later, when I’m still listening to it regularly and have long forgotten the winner, I will once again ask myself, why necromoonyeti? Why do you botch the list every single time?

…At least, that’s where my write-up sat for the past month. Relistening to everything one last time as I prepare to post this, I’m going with the switch. I do feel Oranssi Pazuzu delivered the most complete package I heard in 2020–a visionary work that I both enjoyed tremendously and admired for its sustained attention to how each piece weaves into the album as a whole. But if the question boils down to what I loved listening to the most in 2020, there’s just no debate to be had here.

Ayloss has an absolutely unmistakable guitar style that lead me to instantly identify him in this before I realized what I’d clicked on, and the fuzzy ear candy tones he employs lend to endless repeatability. If you can imagine Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal but rounded on the edges, Ayloss’s finished products are something closer to melodic white noise than metal. It’s downright soothing, and I don’t think I’ve ever found an artist with more background play equity for me personally.

Castles Conquered and Reclaimed might be my favorite Ayloss release to date. It’s hard to say. I’ll have to see what I’m queuing first another year from now. But there is a thematic difference going on, at least to my ears, that projects this album into a medieval sphere dominated lately by Obsequiae, where III felt very other-worldly and earlier Spectral Lore albums tended to give me nature vibes. Evoking the spirits of ancient battles and temples in ruin, ghosts echoing their glory across some sunlit plain. That’s how this album translates into my brain. And if I’m getting pretty far afield in fantasy land here, it must be a pretty unique composition to be able to take me there.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019

My Top 10 Metal Albums of 2013


It’s that time again. In spite of 2013 being pretty much the worst year of my life, I found it a lot easier to select a top 10 list than in 2012. Odd-numbered years almost always seem to produce a wider selection of good music, and I can confidently state that each of these at least border on excellence. Here goes:

10. Ihsahn – Das Seelenbrechen (track: Regen)

There was never a bad Emperor album. Ihsahn’s solo career hasn’t been quite as consistent. The Adversary was an outstanding start, but I barely noticed angL. After was a blast, Eremita something of a bore. Well, what do you know; the cycle continues, and Das Seelenbrechen is outstanding. Eremita seemed all about rhythmic grooves and eclectic interludes, neither of which painted a grand picture for me to take hold of. Das Seelenbrechen, without reducing any of the progressive rock peculiarities for which Ihsahn is famous, reinvests its tension in song structure and the subtler stuff of atmospheric appeal. At times it delves heavily into the world of drone metal, with Tobias Ørnes Andersen pulling off his best Atsuo impression and Ihsahn showing that his unique vocals are pretty well suited for the genre as they stand. The most impressive track on the album might be “Pulse”, if only for the fact that Ihsahn was able to stray so far from his comfort zone and still pull off an excellent song, but my personal favorite has to be “Regen”.

9. Ash Borer – Bloodlands (track: Oblivion’s Spring)

I missed out on Ash Borer’s acclaimed 2011 debut and the 2012 full-length to follow, but the Bloodlands “EP” (it’s still 35 minutes long) found itself well embedded in my subconscious this year. Like many of my selections, I never really sat down and gave it my undivided attention from start to finish. It was a busy year, and most of my albums were experienced as background music rather than a main event. I was kind of surprised to find just how many times I’d listened to this album throughout the year. It was never really on my radar, but I kept playing it time and time again. A twisted, bleak, highly atmospheric recording, Bloodlands successfully captures a traditional black metal vibe that is neither overly passionate nor distractingly aggressive. It’s a pleasant break from the otherwise welcome trend towards a less sinister, more humanizing approach to the genre.

8. Westering – Joy (track: This Will Quiet Us)

Joy is definitely the weirdest album I’ve heard this year that actually worked. Bryan Thomas’s second release as Westering is a cracked window peering into folk, industrial, and maybe even 80s pop scenes, sensible to melodic appeal yet firmly rooted in black metal tradition. To label it another “shoegaze black metal” album would hardly do it justice; the warbling walls of distortion don’t angelicize the metal, but rather demonize the more direct pop elements, creating a final product basked in darkness yet awkwardly catchy and familiar.

7.Ensemble Pearl – Ensemble Pearl (track: Island Epiphany)

It’s sad that this album has gone almost completely unnoticed in 2013. It’s sad that people regard it as another Boris album, or as “Boris and Sunn O))) Part 2”. Because, while it shares much in common with Altar, the cast is quite different and the end product surprisingly even better than its predecessor. While Atsuo Mizuno and Stephen O’Malley reunite, Takeshi and Wata are out, as well as Greg Anderson. Michio Kurihara steps up to the plate along with a fellow I’ve never head of–Bill Herzog–to complete the lineup. The sound these four have managed to assemble is flawless. Smooth as glass and black as night, Ensemble Pearl is a compelling example of music’s capacity to paint a scene more vivid than sight can ever offer.

6. Paysage d’Hiver – Das Tor (track: Macht des Schicksals)

Like Ash Borer, Paysage d’Hiver provided ideal background music for me throughout the year. With a similar appreciation for late 90s/early 2000s atmospheric black metal aesthetics, Das Tor presents a significantly noisier, more trance-inducing break from current metal trends. I fell in love with this album’s capacity for endless repetition as the backdrop for work, reading, and just about any other activity that requires concentration. This particular style of black metal has always really zoned me in and helped me to focus, and Paysage d’Hiver’s take on it is substantially better than most.

5. Mechina – Empyrean (track: Anathema)

Fear Factory’s 1998 opus, Obsolete, was the last industrial death metal album to really blow me away. A lot of bands go there, but few, at least in my experience, are willing to fully nerd out into uncompromised sci-fi fantasy. There is something about the death metal mentality that inclines most bands to play with their nuts out, and it rarely works in their favor. Mechina don’t fall for that. They have no qualms whatsoever about employing clean vocals, dramatic symphonics, and operatic hymns to serve their end. Empyrean paints a lush vision of a futuristic world of technology and galactic combat on the brink of apocalypse. Really stellar stuff. … ha..ha… hmm…

4. Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn (track: Old Mornings Dawn)

It took Summoning seven years to release a new album. I would not be surprised if they were hard at work on it that whole time. Not quite as perfect as Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame, Old Morning Dawn is nevertheless an instant essential within the Summoning discography, never wavering an inch from the solid sound they forged a decade ago. I can’t think of too many albums I’ve anticipated for this long that didn’t let me down (Falkenbach’s Tiurida in 2011 might be the most recent exception), and for that, coming from one of my favorite bands ever, Old Mornings Dawn easily slides in towards the top of my chart.

3. Cara Neir – Portals to a Better, Dead World (track: Peridot)

I remember when I was first getting into black metal and a friend of mine was doing the same with screamo. They seemed like two incommensurable paths at the time. We’d trade the best of what we found, and I love a lot of screamo because of it, but that was his genre and this was mine. There just wasn’t all that much in common between Carpathian Forest and City of Caterpillar.

Times have changed, and much for the better. I’ve tossed around “screamo” and “black metal” in the same sentence before (Roads to Judah), but this is certainly the most raw realization of the two as one that I have heard so far. Portals to a Better, Dead World is another fine product of a new era of metal artists informed beyond their flagship genre. It might not achieve the fame of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, but the two go hand in hand.

2. Deafheaven- Sunbather (track: Dream House)

And that brings us to the most hyped metal album of 2013. Sunbather turned more heads than Roads to Judah, and certainly more than Liturgy’s Aesthethica or Krallice’s Diotima back in 2011. But while the mainstream world regrettably failed to recognize that year as the grand coalescence of heavy metal’s mid-2000s paradigm shift, on Sunbather we reap its fruits. This album is not the novelty many would like to make of it; it is an affirmation of things already come to pass, and a glorious one at that. Music seems to come in sequences of waves, the reluctant undertow of their predecessors slowly dissipating beneath the growing weight of those rushing to shore. Sunbather basks in a new era of aesthetics and ingenuity first dreamed by the likes of Ulver, pressed into form by Agalloch and Alcest, and finally swept into the mainstream three years ago. Love it while it lasts, and amuse yourself with the die-hards that will rip this to shreds rather than embrace it.

1. Peste Noire – Peste Noire

And then there was one. I proclaimed Peste Noire the best album of 2013 about an hour after it leaked back in June, and nothing since has come even close to shaking that resolve. I’ve been doing a “top 10 album” list now every year since 2002, and Peste Noire is the only band to ever take the #1 spot twice, but never mind that. Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor has absolutely nothing on what you will experience here. Let’s try “top 10 metal albums ever recorded”. I have never heard anything quite this clever, filthy, intelligent, and depraved in my life. Famine’s “black ‘n’ roll” sound has never been better, and Peste Noire can rightly be regarded as the refinement of all of the finest features of his past four albums rolled out into one.

The album is heavily enhanced by Famine’s new willingness to tell us what it’s all about. Up through the release of L’Ordure à l’état Pur in 2011, it was anyone’s guess what Famine’s peculiar album antics were all about. He was completely inaccessible as an individual, and his lyrics have always been in French. The man behind the music has since emerged full-formed as an internet personality, conducting interviews, approving lyric translations, and responding to forum inquiries in surprisingly fluent English. He’s revealed himself as an extremely culturally and musically informed character with a sardonic sense of humor that seems to abate the more offensive features of his image, and he completely reformed my view on L’Ordure à l’état Pur–an album I’d initially disregarded, but have since grown to love.

I tried to give Peste Noire a fair review over the summer, but I couldn’t quite do it justice. This article does. Skip to 20 minutes in the above video if you care to hear my favorite track on the album: “Niquez Vos Villes”.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Review: Torche – Harmonicraft


In 2008, I thought of Torche as the most poppy stoner metal on the market. By 2012, the attributes have reversed. You won’t hear anything quite as doomy as Meanderthal’s title track, Pirhaña, or Sandstorm. That crushingly deep guitar still accompanies most of the tracks, it just doesn’t ever become the drawing point of the songs. On Harmonicraft, a catchy melody is job number one, and the results are tremendously effective. From the cover art on down, this is and will likely remain one of the most instantly appealing albums of 2012, and it exhibits a sort of songwriting ethos which hasn’t been very prevalent since the 90s.

Harmonicraft’s introductory song, Letting Go, certainly doesn’t mesmerize the way Triumph of Venus did. But unlike Grenades, Kicking requires no epic lead in:


Kicking

Kicking introduces what will be the style and attitude for the entire album, and it amounts to nothing short of 1990s alternative rock. That occasional Foo Fighters vibe Meanderthal gives off was no accident, but it wasn’t necessarily a product of any direct “influence” either. I think the similarities you might draw to various 90s bands result from Torche’s mindset. Calling Torche “90s rock” is a little ambiguous of course, this being 2012. I suppose one could more directly observe that they took a stoner/post-rock sound and made it bright and bubbly, leading to a sort of “stoner pop” novelty. But when you apply the term “pop” to anything but teen idols you’re being just as vague, and furthermore, though Harmonicraft might seem new from a stoner metal perspective, it feels to me refreshingly nostalgic.


Snakes Are Charmed

Frankly, attempting to categorize Harmonicraft does it a disservice. It’s not a band trying to perfect or expand upon x musical style. It expresses more freedom than that. It harkens back to a time when heavier bands emphasized their own individuality, genres be damned. And that’s why it reminds me of rock in the 90s. I wouldn’t even call it metal, any more than I would call Nirvana or The Offspring punk. And as such, I think it stands at the forefront of music today.

The new standard is synthesis. Metal has been pulling it off lately, especially last year, with bands like Falconer putting a professional gloss on the best of many sub-genres rolled into one, while Liturgy, Deafheaven, and company were forging a more personal if sometimes less formidable approach to the same. Here, Torche are bringing it back to rock. Songs like Snakes Are Charmed have all of the immediate appeal of an instant radio staple, yet rather than repeating something stale, they reinvigorate rock through their more contemporary roots. You hear the stoner/doom and post-rock influences not as those styles, but rather as integrated elements of what it is to be a good rock band. The 90s took the metal and punk subspecies defined in the 80s and made it happen. Now here’s a band getting the job done with musical developments of the last 10 to 15 years.

If there’s any one band I could really compare it to, I’d say Boris.


Walk It Off

I actually forgot that Torche and Boris released a split in 2009 and toured together until after I drew the connection. In Walk It Off the influence is most apparent. Wata’s style is hers alone, but you can definitely feel the sort of inspiration she brings bleeding over into Steve Brooks’ own solos. (Or perhaps Andrew Elstner’s. I don’t actually know who plays lead.) But perhaps even more noteworthy, the more I listen to this track the more I feel that, above all else, the solo really resembles Billy Corgan.


Roaming

And this all amounts to a really awkward way of going about an album review. Sometimes that’s inevitable. No amount of describing Harmonicraft from a metal perspective can do it justice, because it really isn’t a metal album. It is, on the one hand, an immediately and undeniably appealing compilation of catchy tunes which utilize various recent musical movements, mostly within the metal sphere of influence, to accomplish the delivery, and on the other hand, a sign of hope. It excites me to see that this trend towards emphasizing synthesis instead of genre expansion is beginning to spill out of metal and into more accessible rock. I’ll be disappointed if Harmonicraft ends up my favorite album of the year. It’s not that kind of album. It bears no strong message in and of itself–lacks the depth of a masterpiece. But if it could, by some twist of fate, become 2012’s most influential creation, I’d not complain.

Review: The Flight of Sleipnir – Essence of Nine


This has been sort of the year of stoner metal. I swear a new entry to the stoner/doom/sludge genre comes out every week. I’ve ignored most of it. It’s not that I dislike it, I just haven’t been in the mood. But once in a while I’ll sample a few tracks here and there, give each band a minute or two of my time. The Flight of Sleipnir didn’t even require that much effort–within the first ten seconds of the opening track I was hooked.

Transcendence

How these guys aren’t on the radar is beyond me, because this is pretty much everything I could ever want from an album. Sure, the production isn’t that great, but neither is Black Sabbath’s, so let’s get over that right form the start and soak this all in. Here’s a band that just hands you everything you could wnat on a silver platter right form the get-go. A killer bluesy stoner metal groove, delicious acoustic interludes, perfectly executed black metal style screaming, beautiful clean vocals that harken to Mikael Akerfeldt, and we’re only five minutes into the album.

As Ashes Rise (The Embrace of Dusk)

As you might have expected, the opener is just an introduction to what they have in store. Sure they’ve played all of their cards. No additional styles or elements are implemented further down the line. But what they’ve introduced just keeps on improving as the album progresses.

There is a surprising prominence of acoustic melodies packed into Essence of Nine, so much so that I’m inclined to call it folk metal just as much as stoner metal. The abundant allusions to Norse mythology and use of rune stones on a decidedly doom metal album cover suggest that the band would agree. That distinction alone could make an album stand apart, but if “stoner folk metal” is now a term with meaning, they’ve done more than initiate. They’ve come awfully close to perfecting it.

The Seer in White

Because the quality of their song writing overshadows the fact that what they’re doing here is unique. And while I’ve showcased those songs that most appeal to me–the most folk-centric of the lot–there is plenty to be had for fans of the more punishing characteristics of doom. It’s never quite crushing enough to rival the best artists of that sort of music, but as a compliment to the folk side of their sound rather than the main focus of the music, it’s certainly sufficient. Given a live venue and enough amplification I think they would blow me away.

As Cinders Burn (The Wake of Dawn)

Anyway, there you have it. I think I’ll spend more time talking about this album than actually listening to it throughout the year. It’s not the sort of thing I’m always in the mood for, but I can find no fault. People looking for strictly doom metal might find it lacking, but if you’re interested in something a bit more diverse Essence of Nine is a sure bet.

Review: Boris – Heavy Rocks 2011


Oh Boris. The next album of their 2011 trilogy (they actually released a fourth one, a noise album with Merzbow that doesn’t deserve much attention) is named Heavy Rocks. It’s not called Heavy Rocks 2011, or anything like that. No, it has the exact identical same name as their April 2002 release. That’s not the most misleading thing about it though. What makes Heavy Rocks the oddest of the three is that in a lot of ways it’s not particularly heavy. The guitar and drums certainly are, to such a wild extent that it’s hard to take the first few seconds of the album seriously. But they’ve brought their more recent styles along for the ride.

Riot Sugar

What Heavy Rocks 2011 certainly is not is a full return to their stoner/doom roots. It’s something way more bizarre. Oh they turn up the distortion to the max and chug out deep dirty chords the whole way through, but somewhere in there it feels like they’re still playing the role of j-rock stars, floating around up in the sky somewhere. If the majority of the album is relatively in keeping with Riot Sugar, some of the songs are still more pop than anything else.

Window Shopping

I mean, if I called something “pop metal” it would normally be an insult–a reference to talentless mass consumer metal bands like Disturbed and Drowning Pool. But Boris take the notion more literally. This is the most unmistakable on Window Shopping and Tu, La La. I don’t think “pop metal” is their ultimate goal though. I wouldn’t say, from listening to it, that the album has anything so specific in mind. It just disregards the past, and unabashedly incorporates what Boris sound like here and now, which is a whole mess of different things really. The only real goal of the album, I’m pretty sure, is to be heavy. And to rock.

Aileron

Thus you get songs like Aileron. It’s unmistakably Boris, and stylistically it has a lot more in common with their early albums than with anything on New Album or Attention Please. But it doesn’t feel like those earlier works much. It’s underpinned by the dreamier qualities that they’ve recently adopted, for better or worse. I mean, this sounds like the breaking point of Flood III in reverse, like the water is all lifting up to the heavens. I really don’t know what I’m listening to on a lot of this album, and it took a while to grow on me. It has nothing of the immediate appeal present on the other two, but it’s good in its own unique way.

Galaxians

Galaxians is my favorite track, and it kicks off with some stoner metal more in keeping with the original Heavy Rocks than probably anything else on the album. But it still feels like it’s floating. The softer vocal style, that sort of laser gun effect they’re using, even the track title suggests something far from the earth. Maybe this song best represents what they’re going for. I think I’d have understood the whole album a lot better if they’d named it Heavy Clouds.

Heavy Rocks 2011 is my least favorite of the three, but don’t get me wrong. I really like it. Besides, Boris have a unique and coveted ability to never sound bad. It’s either really good or just really weird/experimental. Even at their worst (and I’m not calling Heavy Rocks 2011 that) they always reward us with something great somewhere down the line.

In 2011 that something great is called Attention Please, and I’ll be wrapping up this review series by covering it tomorrow.

Song of the Day: 4th of July (by Soundgarden)


It is now just minutes since the 4th of July finally arrives in the US once more (at least on the West Coast since the East Coast has been celebrating the 4th of July for 3 hours now). What better way to celebrate the arrival of another 4th of July than to pick the song of the same name for today’s latest “Song of the Day”.

Soundgarden’s Superunknown album from 1994 may be part of the grunge scene which sprouted during the early 1990’s but this album has more metal about it than the grunge espoused by the disciples of Cobain. The song I picked for today I consider the best in the album which contains other classics. “4th of July” is such a heavy song that so many casual fans of the album fail to miss the heavy influence of early Black Sabbath in the song. They also fail to realize just how un-grunge it is with its dark lyrics (not emo mind you, but dark in a palpable sense). “4th of July” becomes an accidental introduction for newbie metal fans to the world of doom metal.

This song is the very definition of heavy and doom. From the heaviness in the guitar riffs to the subdued, but evocative way Cornell sings the dark lyrics (lyrics I always thought of someone just experiencing and living through the aftermath of a nuclear war). But in the end this song really shows it’s Black Sabbath and doom metal pedigree from the sludge-like sound coming out of the bass guitar chords.

“4th of July” once heard cannot be unheard. It’s a song that grabs one by the throat, doesn’t let go until the final doom-laden lyric and note has finally faded into the air.

HAPPY 4th of JULY!

4th of July

Shower in the dark day
Clean sparks driving down
Cool in the waterway
Where the baptized drown
Naked in the cold sun
Breathing life like fire
Thought I was the only one
But that was just a lie

Cause I heard it in the wind
And I saw it in the sky
And I thought it was the end
And I thought it was the 4th of July

Pale in the flare light
The scared light cracks & disappears
And leads the scorched ones here
And everywhere no one cares
The fire is spreading
And no one wants to speak about it
Down in the hole
Jesus tries to crack a smile
Beneath another shovel load

And I heard it in the wind
And I saw it in the sky
And I thought it was the end
And I thought it was the 4th of July

Now I’m in control
Now I’m in the fall out
Once asleep but now I stand
And I still remember
Your sweet everything
Light a Roman candle
And hold it in your hand

Cause I heard it in the wind
And I saw it in the sky
And I thought it was the end
And I thought it was the 4th of July